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January/February 2004


Shibori on Knits:
A Single-Minded Exploration

Mie Iwatsubo, Bulb Bags, 2001; felted wool; circles of fabric stitched and dyed; 80 by 80 inches.

Shibori is the traditional textile process that roughly translates as "shaped resist dyeing." While examples of the technique can be found around the globe, the word itself is Japanese, and it is often the textiles from that region that are most associated with the process. Young Japanese designers such as Mie Iwatsubo have embraced traditional techniques while remaining determined to explore new applications for contemporary design.

For Iwatsubo, shibori is the single textile technique she has explored since she first became interested in textile design. While it may be easy to question the breadth one can attain from such a narrow base, Iwatsubo's dedication has led to a high level of expertise and a healthy curiosity for opportunities that marry the process with other techniques. Iwatsubo explains, "It is important to innovate or develop the shibori [technique], adding new methods to make it contemporary and more individual."

Iwatsubo holds a B.A. in textile design (2000) from the Musashino Art University in Japan and an M.A. in fashion and textiles (2001) from Nottingham Trent University in England. Now based in her native Japan, she has continued to develop her exploration of shibori with work that is strikingly organic in both color and form. Everything is made with natural fibers, which she feels lend themselves to the organic shapes created by the shibori technique. Colors are chosen for "harmony with natural materials, as they are appropriate for organic shapes." While "organic" may sound like a commonplace, almost lazy, description, in Iwatsubo's case the richness of color and molding of form are so evocative of natural growth that the phrase is inescapable. The newness lies in the saturation of color and the depth of the pleated grooves that cover the surfaces of the bulblike bags and heavily veined scarves she creates.

Leheriya (detail), 2001; lambs' wool, natural rayon viscose; plating (knitting technique), Indian resist binding/dying; 180 by 40 inches.

Where Iwatsubo departs from traditional methods is in her choice of fabric. Rather than using a woven fabric, Iwatsubo applies a combination of shibori dyeing and felting to knits. Unlike woven fabric, knits have a lateral elasticity that makes the pleats and gathers that act as the resist respond differently than in a woven fabric.

Iwatsubo is ultimately at ease with the lack of control that characterizes shibori dyeing. She explains, "Even though it is time consuming and is difficult to mass produce, I depend on this risk factor as it is an essential part of shibori's unpredictable beauty. I never hate risks. If anything, I enjoy manipulating these risks."

-Jessica Hemmings

Jessica Hemmings, a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh, holds a B.F.A. in textiles and writes frequently about textile art. She teaches in the English department at the Rhode Island School of Design.

In these examples, Mie Iwatsubo has used cotton or wool threads to stitch her hand-knitted fabric into tight pleats or gathers before dying. In most cases, the stitched threads are removed after dying, revealing patterns where the dye has not fuly penetrated the fabric.
Momiji ("Maple Leaf")
For the Momiji pattern, the knitted fabric is pleated and stitched tight. The eyelet pattern of the knit creates small holes through which the threads can be sewn. When pleated, the knitted fabric takes on the shape of a Momiji, which means "maple leaf" in Japanese. While this type of shibori pattern is traditionally made by immersing the pleated fabric in a dye bath, Iwatsubo prints a discharge dye onto the pleated ridges. This alternative technique allows the dye to penetrate only the surface of the woolen knit. As a result, the shibori-resisted pattern is much sharper than the soft patterns created with immersion dyeing.
Sara Sara ("Stream")
The name of this silk-and-linen fabric is inspired by the smooth noise it murmurs when moving over the body. The hand-knitted fabric is sewn into pleats, dyed (adding color), discharge dyed (removing color), overdyed (adding color again), and finally smocked or pleated.
Up and Down
Here Iwatsubo combines shibori with felting to set the resist pleats in place. The cotton scarf is knitted in an eyelet pattern and stitched with woolen threads. The woolen threads are then felted and shrunk, creating permanent pleats.

Komasu ("Small Square")
This scarf was originally inspired by the traditional technique Komasu shibori. As for Momiji, the base knit has an eyelet pattern. The irregular color is created through a multiple dye process. In this case, the shibori threads are unraveled three times; with each new stitching, a different dye bath is used.

This profile first appeared in:

Jan/Feb 2004


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